Buddha and Parmenides on the deathless

Filed under mm • Tagged: Buddha, Parmenides, Deathless, Spirituality

The Buddha was not one to mince his words.

One of his most powerful quotes is recorded in the Udana—the “Inspired Utterances”:

There is that sphere of being where there is no earth, no water, no fire, nor wind; no experience of infinity…; here there is neither this world nor another world, neither moon nor sun; this sphere of being I call neither a coming nor a going nor a staying still, neither a dying nor a reappearance; it has no basis, no evolution, and no support: it is the end of dukkha. (ud. 8.1)

Years after first coming across this quote, I’d become reimmersed in the Western mystery tradition. Parmenides is not considered a part of that tradition by most academics, yet here is a part of his proem which strikes a remarkably similar tone to the Buddha:

There is only one tale of a path left to tell: that is. And along this way there are many, many signs that as well as being birthless it’s also deathless and whole and of a single kind and unmoving—and neither is it incomplete.

It never was and never will be because it is now, all together, one, holding to itself… So it is that creation has been extinguished, and of destruction there is not a word to be heard.

If they weren’t similar enough, Parmenides also references a sphere later in this verse: “this means it is perfectly complete–just like the bulk of a sphere neatly rounded off from each direction, equally matched from the middle on every side.”

They are both describing something mysterious: the nature of reality, or “that is.”

The Buddha and Parmenides are not often mentioned in the same sentence. The former is accepted as a contemplative and mystic, whereas the latter is seen as someone who catalysed our movement away from mysticism and towards reason.

We all know what the Buddha taught, but as Peter Kingsley reveals in Reality, Parmenides was also surrounded on all sides by stillness and an appreciation of the deathless.

—Dan Bartlett
1 Jan 2023

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